Tom Kenny

The actor: Although arguably best known for giving voice to the title character in Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants, Tom Kenny can be heard in hundreds of hours of animated television, stretching back to the early ’90s. Nickelodeon was also responsible for providing Kenny with his first full-time gig as a voice actor: playing Heffer Wolfe (and various other characters) on Rocko’s Modern Life. Although it would be impossible to cover even a tenth of the items on his résumé without spending several hours with him, Kenny took some time between recording sessions to speak with The A.V. Club about his many projects, including Rocko, whose first season was recently released on DVD by Shout! Factory.

Rocko’s Modern Life (1993-1998)—“Heffer Wolfe”
Tom Kenny: Rocko was a Nickelodeon cartoon of the early ’90s that came right on the heels of Ren & Stimpy, or right around that same era, and was created by a super-talented guy named Joe Murray. That was my first voiceover series. I had been in on-camera series here and there, but it was a revelation. It was myself and Reno 911!’s Carlos Alazraqui, voiceover demigod Charlie Adler, and Mr. Lawrence, who went on to be Sheldon Plankton on SpongeBob SquarePants. Also, the creative director was Stephen Hillenberg, who was also working his first job in animation and who, y’know, went on to create SpongeBob. Yeah, we're a bunch of inbred hillbillies, we are.

The A.V. Club: What was the experience like for you, given that it was your first big voice-acting gig?

TK: It was great. I remember auditioning and just wanting to get it so bad, because I really wanted to do voiceover, and it was not easy to… Well, I mean, I don’t know, maybe it was just me, but I was having a hard time crashing the gate. I was glad when I auditioned for that show and then actually booked it. I was just doing stand-up comedy and on-camera stuff at that point.

AVC: How much freedom did you have to ad-lib when you were voicing Heffer Wolfe?

TK: Joe was very generous with that. He was really great about letting the comedy just happen, and they were pretty rocking sessions, as I remember. Rocking? They were pretty rollicking sessions. But they probably rocked, too. [Laughs.] It was really fun, and I realized that my instinct, that voiceover would be just about the best gig in the world, was correct. I’ve told this story before, but for me, the big thing was coming in the first day and meeting Charlie Adler, who had done tons of voiceover for, like, Tiny Toons and all kinds of stuff. It would’ve been worth it just for that experience. One of the things he did was, there was a scene where it was two or three of the characters that he did talking to each other, and he just did it all without cutting, and they were like, “Do you want to do the characters separately, and then we’ll patch it together later?” And he was, like, “Nah, nah, you don’t need to do that.” I remember that, and going, “Wow! These guys are good. I wanna be like that guy.”

AVC: SpongeBob is probably No. 1 on the hit list when it comes to your past projects, but is Rocko’s Modern Life No. 2?

TK: Well, it’s on there, but I don’t know about No. 2, because everyone has their cartoons that they feel a special affinity for. A lot of that has to do with what age you’re at when something comes out. For instance, there’s a certain age group that thinks The Goonies is a brilliant movie.

AVC: Based on your tone, that would apparently not be your generation.

TK: [Laughs.] You know, I’m just puzzled by it, that’s all. But with Rocko, the show really hasn’t been out there a whole lot since it went off the air. It was kind of here and there, a couple of VHS collections way back in the day, but those were just, like, a couple of episodes. As the years have gone, I’ve noticed that as the audience that saw it when they were kids gradually ages, there’s been a growingly vociferous demand for it to come out on DVD, or people asking why it’s not on DVD already. So the time is probably right for this season-one set.

Mr. Show With Bob And David (1995-1998)—Various
TK: Again, a case of just really creative people being in charge. I’ve got a pretty good—or pretty lucky—record of falling into shows where the creators are guys with really definitive visions. Bob [Odenkirk] and David [Cross] were definitely that. That show was their sensibility. They wanted to blow up, explode comedy-sketch shows and rebuild it in their image. And they totally did that. Just being around for that as part of the stock company was thrilling. Those guys are really great, and tons of creativity going on in that show. Everybody, including Bob and David, working for low pay and long hours, but the stuff coming out of them was unusual and different.

AVC: Do you have a favorite character or sketch from that era?

TK: I think my favorite character to play among the many was the Satanic televangelist. They were like normal Christian televangelists, except they worship Satan. Everything else is the same. Same hair, same haircut, everything. I did that with my wife Jill [Talley], and that was really fun to do. I’d say my other favorite was Kedzie Matthews, the high-energy campus comedian who was in a Hawaiian shirt and fluffy wig. That show was full of wigs. That was fun to do, because it was kind of like every comedian I saw during my stand-up days at Yale, who would destroy the room while maintaining the lowest common denominator of frat-boy-centralized comedy. Now there are guys trying to make whole movie careers out of that. [Laughs.]

AVC: You also played “Professor Ellis D. Traills,”correct?

TK: Uh huh, that’s right. That was a really fun Sid and Marty Krofft Saturday-morning-show spoof we did, with a kind of Lidsville / H.R. Pufnstuf vibe to it, and I was, I guess, the Charles Nelson Riley-esque Prof. Ellis D. Trails, who was some sort of a wizard-scientist that is always tripping his brains out in the woods somewhere.

AVC: You nailed it.

TK: [Laughs.] Thank you. It’s funny, but Charles Nelson Riley later worked on SpongeBob. He did the voice of a villain called The Dirty Bubble that was, like, a villain of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy. And then after he passed away, I wound up doing his ADR on his episode that wasn’t done yet. It’s great that Mr. Show has found so much posthumous glory. There were people who were into it and knew about it at the time, but it’s funny how many people—who, and if you do the math, must have been very young children when that show was airing—know everything about every episode. Way more than I do.

Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen (2009)—“Wheelie” and “Skids”
Transformers: Dark Of The Moon (2011)—“Wheelie”
TK: All these jobs start with the same kind of audition, where you go into a room with folding chairs and write your name on a sign-in sheet, and you look around at a bunch of other guys who are trying to get the same check you’re trying to get. So it’s always nice to get the gig. It feels good. I had actually seen the first movie with a bunch of my nephews, and my son, who was pretty young at the time, and just thought it was probably the best movie about giant robots punching the shit out of each other that I had ever seen. But I was not in the first one, so I auditioned for the second one. Mostly for, like, a Joe Pesci-esque, weasely-type character named Wheelie. And then the other character, Skids, I think that might have just happened at one of the sessions where Michael Bay said, “Here. Try and read this.” Those are strange jobs. It’s those times you’re really glad to be a voice actor, because the movies are all shot, everything is done except the robot animation, and you’re just putting words in the mouth of the robots. All these other actors had to rappel down the sides of buildings, roll around in the sand, and sweat through 150-degree temperatures, and I’m sitting there drinking a cappuccino and doing robot voices. As far as Michael Bay goes, when I saw the new one, there’s a big scene where people are rappelling down the pyramids, and it looked great. It looked so real. I said, “Where were your pyramids?” I thought they must have built some mock-up somewhere. And he said, “Oh, well, you know: the Pyramids.” And I’m like, “Giza?” “Yeah, that’s a real pyramid.” It’s pretty funny, because they’re doing some pretty rough stuff on the actual pyramids. Only Michael Bay has the pull to force the Egyptian government to let him have a robot fight on their pyramids. He’s like the Bill Graham of blockbuster movies.

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AVC: Skids ended up being more of a controversial character than intended, at least temporarily.

TK: Yeah, in some corners, I guess. I was kind of surprised by that. I mean, really? That? Out of all the egregious shit that’s in movies and TV 24/7, why is this getting any corner over anything else? Yeah, I was surprised, as was Reno Wilson, the African-American actor who played the other robot [Mudflap]. I didn’t really expect it to be a big deal, because I’ve seen not-too-bright gangstas spoofed elsewhere, and, y’know, I’m not saying all Crips are like that or anything. [Laughs.] But it was weird to be doing something where, as you’re doing it, you’re going, “This is probably going to be the Jar-Jar Binks part that everybody hates.” It was supposed to be fun. You know, Michael Bay goes, “These are robots. They’ve fixated on these signals that are coming into space, and they’ve just been fascinated by Bad Boys II for the last bunch of years. They’re wannabe gangstas. They’re trying to be gangstas.” Me and Reno said, “Yeah, okay, fine. We can try that.” That’s what happened, and everyone freaked out. But it didn’t last very long. It burned out pretty quickly. I guess people didn’t really care that much. [Laughs.]

Futurama (2001-2002)—“Yancy Fry”
TK: I love The Simpsons, but with their super-genius stock company of actors, they don’t really need to go outside their bullpen except for giant celebrities, so it was nice to work with Matt Groening and those guys, David X. Cohen and the guys who write Futurama. That show is so smart and funny. Billy West is an old pal of mine, as is John Dimaggio, who plays Bender. There was a while where a lot of the gigs I was going out on were coming down to me and Billy West every single time. But Billy’s a pal of mine. It was fun to play something in kind of my own voice. Fry is pretty close to Billy’s voice, and he and I are starting from similar chambers, anyway. Yeah, he and I often go up and read for the same stuff. And he usually gets it. [Laughs.]

Plastic Man In “Puddle Trouble” (2006)—“Plastic Man”
Batman: The Brave And The Bold (2009)—“Plastic Man”
TK: Myself and a guy named Andy Suriano, who is, let’s see… a character designer/animator/storyboard guy/comic-book artist/painter. [Laughs.] I think that’s all of them. He did the character design for a lot of shows I worked on—I think Dexter’s Laboratory and Clone Wars—and I would always see him at Cartoon Network, and we would always start talking about, like, comic books. We both loved Jack Cole’s Plastic Man comics, and that led us to talking about the fairly awful ’80s limited-animation Plastic Man cartoon series. We just thought it was funny that you would take the most pliable, limitless character in the universe, and then do it in limited animation.

So we just got talking, and we pitched Cartoon Network on doing a little short film of our Plastic Man, the Plastic Man that we would want to see. You know, funnier, crazier, goofier, with more squash and stretch, a Bob Clampett sensibility than you couldn’t have done on an ’80s Filmation series, or whoever made it. [Ruby-Spears Productions. —ed.] We did that, and it got made, but it did not get picked up as a series. But it got a lot of good buzz on the Internet, then they put it as a DVD extra when they collected the original Plastic Man series on DVD, and we thought, “Well, that’s that.” But now, years later, they’ve just asked us to do five more shorts. Which is amazing, because I had consigned it to the grave. You know, “It was really fun, it came out the way we wanted, it was a cool experience, and it didn’t get picked up as a series, as most things don’t, so now we’re moving on.”

AVC: I hadn’t heard about the shorts. Is that brand-new?

TK: Yeah, it is brand-new. I don’t even know if I should be talking about it. [Laughs.] They asked us to do treatments for five shorts, which we are in the process of doing, but between those two things, they decided they wanted to use Plastic Man in the Brave And The Bold series, which is a series of Batman teaming up with pretty much every character in the D.C. Universe, from the most major to the most geniusly obscure, which are always my favorite characters anyway. The third string is always more interesting to me. I love Detective Chimp. [Laughs.] When is somebody going to bring back Detective Chimp? He was a monkey that somehow got really smart and solves mysteries. The great thing about that was that they had already heard me as Plastic Man, and liked it, and said, “Why don’t we just have Tom do this Plastic Man in this series?” That was really fun, to be able to voice this character I always had a kind of weird affinity for. 

Shakes The Clown (1991)—“Binky the Clown”
World’s Greatest Dad (2009)—“Jerry Klein”
TK: Yeah, Bobcat Goldthwait and I are longtime friends. Since early grade school. Since we were 6 years old. We grew up together, went to grammar school together, went to high school with each other, went to each other’s houses in suburbia when we were kids, we both did stand-up together, we were best men at each other’s weddings. In 1992, he wrote a script that he wanted to direct, and IRS Films gave him the go-ahead, and it became… [Mock horror.] My God. My résumé is littered with cult classics. And I don’t even know what that really means! [Laughs.] But, yeah, Shakes The Clown, really fun, really low-budget, some of it made up as we went along. Quite a bit of it made up as we went along, actually. And Bobcat was an amazingly facile director, considering he hadn’t really done that before, except for some shorts. It was really fun, littered with weird cameos: Robin Williams, who’s another longtime friend of Bob’s, Florence Henderson, LaWanda Page, who was a Chitlin Circuit comedy legend, Sydney Lassick from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Joel Murray, who I think Bob met on one of those Savage Steve Holland movies. So, yeah, it was really low-budget, but it was really crazy and really fun. I just remember the première of the movie. People were pretty sure that the movie Bob had given them was not going to be the mainstream, feel-good, shopping-mall hit they were hoping for. [Laughs.] At the première, which was at the TV Academy in Los Angeles, they set up some carnival rides and booths, keeping with the clown-related motifs. I remember it being a fairly dispirited affair.

So years later, Bob’s been working on various scripts—he’s a hard-working guy—and had a script called World’s Greatest Dad, where Robin Williams plays a failed writer who’s the father of the most horrible teenager in movie history. The most unreasonable, horrific child to ever be on a movie screen, brilliantly played by Daryl Sabara. I’m always so busy with the voiceover stuff that Bob let my wife and I do a scene—because we only had one day—with Robin where she’s the makeup artist and I’m the floor director of a Oprah/Sally Jessy Raphael-esque morning show that Robin was going on. Basically, it gave us an excuse to spend a day in Seattle. [Laughs.] 

Oh, one more thing about Shakes. The amazing thing is that, after not having seen Shakes for years and years and years, I went to a screening of it at The Silent Movie Theater here in L.A., which was jam-packed. Crazy packed. Sold out. But, y’know, watching that and then seeing World’s Greatest Dad, just seeing the almost-eerie strides Bob made in his directing… like, on Shakes, he was way better than he should have been to begin with, but with World’s Greatest Dad and this new one he’s doing, called God Bless America—where Jill and I have cameos as office workers that are struck down in a bloody mêlée—it’s like he’s Robert Johnson and sold his soul at the crossroads to the devil. It’s like, “How did you learn to direct so good?” [Laughs.] 

The Powerpuff Girls (1998-2005)—“Narrator” and “Mayor” 
TK: Like I was saying earlier about passionate, driven creators with a real vision, like Bobcat and Bob and David: You know, there are people who go, “Ah, your résumé is so disparate, it’s so heterogeneous, you work in all different stuff,” but if there’s a similarity to anything that’s good that I’ve worked on, it’s that there’s been a creator at the helm of it who believes in it and is passionate. I was lucky to start at Cartoon Network as guys like Genndy Tartakovsky and Craig McCracken were just starting to work their magic. They’re really creative guys who were given freedom to do their shows the way they wanted. I think Craig knew me from Dexter’s Laboratory because he worked on that with Genndy. I auditioned for a zillion parts, including the Professor Utonium part, the girls’ adoptive father, and wound up booking the Mayor, which is kind of like a weird Frank Morgan in The Wizard Of Oz meets Ruth Gordon in Every Which Way But Loose, kind of loose vocalization, and The Narrator, who’s just your typical bombastic superhero narrator. But that was really fun, because that was the first show that I worked on where you saw the merchandise taking off. When that show started to hit, you’d go down to Melrose Avenue, and there’d be little Asian girls with black fingernail polish and Powerpuff Girls backpacks. It was kind of exciting. I had never been on a show that actually had time to get merchandise out. [Laughs.]

Dilbert (1999-2000)—“Asok” and “Ratbert”
Mission Hill (1999-2002)—“Wally Langford” 
TK: However, my batting average in prime-time animation is pretty abysmal. [Laughs.] Again, both those shows had the same thing. Larry Charles, with Dilbert, I mean what network was it on, USA? UPN? It was on, like, UPN, and I think it was the wrong network. The wrong show on the wrong network at the wrong time. I think if that show had been able to get out a little earlier—because animation takes a while—like, when Dilbert-mania was at its peak, you know. It kinda missed the boat just a little bit. But I thought Larry Charles brilliantly solved the problem of how to turn a three-panel comic strip into a 22-minute animated series. I thought that show was good. And Scott Adams was very involved it in, too. He was around, and he and Larry Charles were definitely working out together and talking together a lot, which was interesting, because most of the time, they kiss the strip-creator goodbye, like, “Pack your bags, enjoy your money, we’ll take your baby and do what we want with it.”

Mission Hill was [Josh] Weinstein and [Bill] Oakley, who were Simpsons guys, and again, a really good show that weirdly has gotten a lot of posthumous love. [Laughs.] You know, people come up to me at conventions and go, “I love Mission Hill! Bring back Mission Hill!” But they only aired the first couple episodes of that. It was on the WB, and ratings were so low that I don’t think they showed more than three or four of those. I don’t think people really saw those until they came out on DVD. 

I thought the scripts were really funny, and the characters were great. And working with Brian Posehn from Mr. Show was great. And Wally Langham was great. [Laughs.] A) It was just a funny show, but b) I thought it was great that the bickering-but-you-can-tell-that-they-still-love-each-other married couple on the show were two gay guys. I thought that was really cool, and something that I had not seen. That’s something everyone makes a big deal out of with Modern Family now, but how many years before Modern Family was this? You know, they were two older guys that had been together a long time, and I just thought it was great. It was like, “What if Raymond’s parents were two dudes?” You don’t see that on TV often, still don’t. I guess Will And Grace or whatever, but it’s always done as a novelty, not just as a, “Yeah, get over it. There are two middle-aged characters who have been in love for a long time, and they’re also guys. Get over it.” There’s humor inherent in that, but me and Nick [Jameson], who played the other one [Gus Duncz], we both approached it pretty real. I just thought it was a really different, especially at the time, road to go down. In fact, in retrospect, I wish the show had been about them, and less about the twentysomething slackers who are not good at anything. There should have been a series about a middle-aged gay couple. Might as well do that as a live-action series, right? Why not? [Laughs.]

SpongeBob SquarePants (1999-present)—“SpongeBob SquarePants” 
TK: SpongeBob was kind of circling the airport, ready to land, in ’96. Steve Hillenberg, who I knew from Rocko, called me up and told me about this new show he had percolating that he maybe wanted me to be the lead on, and he showed me a bunch of material, which was awesome and really thought-out, beautifully drawn, and pretty much all there, all on those pieces of paper. I remember being on the set of Mr. Show, season three, with a fake beard on, playing a wizard or something, and getting the call that SpongeBob was going. I was thrilled, because SpongeBob was another one where I looked at it and thought, “If I’m not the person doing this, I’ll be really sad.” Like, I knew there was no guarantee that I’d be the person that would get it, but it’s one of those things that every time I would see it, it would bum me out, because I felt like, “I understand this guy! I can make this guy speak! Please, God, give me a chance!”

And that’s when all my voiceover stuff was becoming by far the bulk of my work. My schedule was getting crazier, doing some voiceover on half a dozen, maybe even seven or eight series at a time, plus toys and commercials and videogames. So for that reason, I didn’t do the truncated final season of Mr. Show, because it was too hard schedule-wise, though my wife continued on. But yeah, SpongeBob went to series, and I recorded it—in fact, I just recorded today, that’s where I’m driving from—and it’s weird that it’s become this super-giant global thing with fairly long legs. I mean, it’s even present during the president’s speeches! He’s made a lot of SpongeBob references, at least three by my count. It’s just kind of crazy and interesting being the voice of this drawing, this character, that seems to resonate fairly deeply with a lot of people. Families and kids in particular, but not exclusively. I was at some show for Nickelodeon where they had some statistic that some huge percentage of the viewership is 18 and over. And that’s still going on. 

AVC: That had to have been a life-changing role for you.

TK: Well, in some ways, yes, but in some ways it’s the same, because you’re still slogging around and making funny voices for money. Which is a job I love, but, y’know, I’m still driving my same crappy Prius around after having a crappy Corolla for 10, 11 years, maybe longer. So in some ways, it’s the same. It’s an element of your life, driving around doing all these other things. Like, I’m Rabbit in the new Winnie The Pooh. You exist in all these different worlds that each have their own vibe. Every show and every studio and every show creator has their own vibe. Whether it’s Michael Bay or Bobcat or Steve Hillenberg or Craig McCracken or whoever, they each have their own way of working, but the similarity between them all is that they are all really strong about their vision, and they’re also getting it done how they want to. My job becomes just to help them get it done the way they want to, to make it sound like the way they hear it in their head. It’s a lot more like being a session drummer than being an actor. I identify way more with Hal Blaine than I do with George Hurley. 

The Edge (1992-1993)—Various
TK: That was a one-season show on Fox, with Julie Brown and… Well, first of all, among the cast was myself and Jill Talley, whom I later married, but I met her on the set for that show. So I obviously remember that show fondly, because I walked away with this great perk of an awesome wife. But also, there was Wayne Knight, Jennifer Aniston—a pretty crazy cast in that one. It was created by Julie Brown and David Mirkin, who went on to helm The Simpsons for a long time, and before that had done Get A Life. That was fun. I was still living in San Francisco when I got that, this phantom guy only coming down to L.A. occasionally. That was really fun, because it was so ambitious. It had so many sets, and it was a really jam-packed sketch show. It was a giant workload, but really fun. It was at the same time that they were doing Ben Stiller, so there was definitely some cross-pollination, because I knew Janeane Garofalo and David Cross from stand-up, and Jill knew Bob Odenkirk from Second City in Chicago. We were cross-pollinating at the same time there, which probably led to Jill and I being cast on Mr. Show.

Medusa: Dare To Be Truthful (1992)—“Bobo Kaufman”
Attack Of The 5 Ft. 2 Women (1994)—“Director”
AVC: Were your roles in Medusa: Dare To Be Truthful and Attack Of The 5 Ft. 2 Women due to working with Julie Brown on The Edge? Or did you know her before working together on that series?

TK: I knew her from Shakes The Clown! [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s pretty funny. I never talk about all these things at the same time, so when I see the weird tangled web of how it’s all interconnected… I’ve been such a jack-of-all-trades—or a jack-off-of-all-trades, as some people would say—that you just meet so many people, and work with so many people. Crew guys, writers, animators, actors, and then you got your kids’ school worlds, so there’s like, kids’ sports and school, and then charity stuff, so it’s like—well, basically, what I’m saying is that when it comes to degrees of separation, I can probably kick Kevin Bacon’s ass. [Laughs.] I’m my own drinking game: The Tom Kenny Drinking Game is there, waiting to happen. 

Adventure Time (2010)—“The Ice King”
TK: I get do to so much stuff and so many different things, but I’m loving working on Adventure Time, that weird show on Cartoon Network that my 13-year-old is obsessed with. Again, Pendleton Ward is another in the club of mercurial, driven guys who have something in them that needs to come out, you know what I mean? There was this thing in them that had to come, and it becomes like a mania to get this show going and get it done the way they want it. I never had that gene, and sometimes I’m glad, but sometimes I’ll go, “God, do I lack ambition? Am I just Huckleberry Finn?” [Laughs.] Luckily, guys like the ones I’m describing need colored pencils in their box. I guess I’m just one of the colored pencils that they take out and use once in a while. One thing I think I’ve got going for me is that after I’m done working with someone, they don’t hate me. They go, “Oh let’s use Tom again. He doesn’t cause problems, he’s nice. He’s not on heroin. Let’s just call him.” [Laughs.]